She wanted fame and found it in the worst way.
Above is a photograph of actress Jean Spangler superimposed over an image of Fern Dell, which is a wooded area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Generally, this is labeled a vintage photo, but to our eyes it looks like the Fern Dell section is a contemporary shot, possibly even a digital one. Well, even if a blogger made this composite it's one of the most interesting Spangler images to be found. Today in 1949 the aspiring actress left her home to go to work on a movie set, stopped in a grocery store, and disappeared, never to be seen again. Her purse was later found in Fern Dell with a note inside: “Kirk: Can't wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away."
Spangler had just finished working on the film Young Man with a Horn with Kirk Douglas, so the note led to speculation about her relationship to the actor. Douglas was in Palm Springs at the time of the disappearance, and he was never a suspect, but Hollywood gossip centered around Spangler possibly having had an affair with him, getting pregnant, seeking an abortion, and dying during the procedure. Since none of the film studios had any record of Spangler being scheduled to work the night of her disappearance, it was clear she was going someplace in secret. In this telling the abortionists disposed of her body, though why they'd leave her purse in Griffith Park is a mystery.
Another theory had her running away with the gangster Davy Ogul. She had met him while working as a dancer at Florentine Gardens and had been seen in his company away from the club. He was under indictment and possibly facing prison time, so when he disappeared two days after Spangler, theorists put them together fleeing to Mexico or beyond. The problem with this idea is that Spangler had family and a five-year-old daughter in Los Angeles, which makes her simply running away forever, with no attempts to make contact, unlikely. It also fails to explain the purse and note.
The case stayed hot for a while, but after reward offers, thousands of police hours expended, speculative tabloid articles, and claimed sightings in California, Arizona, and Mexico City, authorities were baffled. In Texas a hotel clerk who claimed he'd seen Ogul with a mystery woman identified Spangler from a photo, but her photo had been in every paper in the U.S. by then. There were no firm answers anywhere. In the end Spangler's disappearance was never solved, leaving her another atmospheric Hollywood tale, and another cold case in the files of the LAPD.
There's a sucker born every minute. And they die just as fast.
Fredric Brown's Madball was hard as hell to get at anything approaching a reasonable cost but we finally scored a copy. It's one of the more famous novels in the fertile carny niche, and had two amazing covers which you see above, the first by Griffith Foxley for the 1953 Dell edition, and the second by Mitchell Hooks for the 1962 Gold Medal edition. What's a madball? It's a gazing crystal. What's Madball about? After an insurance settlement a carnival worker comes into a couple of thousand bucks. When he's murdered his nest egg seems like the motive. But what nobody knows—or what nobody is supposed to know—is that he'd also been an accomplice in a bank robbery and possessed not just a couple of thousand dollars, but more than $40,000. That's about $380,000 in today's money—sufficient to inspire desperation and bloodthirsty viciousness. Madball is set apart by its weird backdrop, its odd carny denizens, its multi-pov narrative, and its sexual frankness. It's a mad tale, improbably plotted, testing the limits of believability, but recommended. See more carny fiction here, here, and here.
Vintage paperback violence gets up close and personal.
We have another collection today as we prepare to jet away on vacation with the girls. Since the place we’re going is known for rowdy British tourists (what place isn’t known for that?), we thought we’d feature some of the numerous paperback covers featuring fights. You’ll notice, as with our last collection, the preponderance of French books. Parisian publishers loved this theme. The difference, as opposed to American publishers, is that you almost never saw women actually being hit on French covers (we’d almost go so far as to say it never happened, but we’ve obviously not seen every French paperback ever printed). The French preferred man-on-man violence, and when women were involved, they were either acquitting themselves nicely, or often winning via the use of sharp or blunt instruments.
Violence against women is and has always been a serious problem in the real world, but we’re just looking at products of the imagination here, which themselves represent products of the imagination known as fiction. Content-wise, mid-century authors generally frowned upon violence toward women even if they wrote it into their novels. Conversely, the cover art, stripped of literary context, seemed to glorify it. Since cover art is designed to entice readers, there’s a valid discussion here about why anti-woman violence was deemed attractive on mid-century paperback fronts, and whether its disappearance indicates an understanding of its wrongness, or merely a cynical realization that it can no longer be shown without consequences. We have another fighting cover here, and you may also want to check out our western brawls here.
Okay, we’re ready to go. Um, anytime lazybones. Helloooo. Geez, it’s like he doesn’t even hear us.
Above, a cover for Three Women in Black, a mystery by the prolific American author Helen Reilly, née Helen Kieran, 1953. Part of the Inspector McKee series, this is the story of a wealthy man murdered in a roomful of people, an event which is followed by a second murder, and the uncovering of motives involving blackmail and a hidden inheritance, with a love triangle to add spice to the proceedings. Reilly was a heavyweight in the mystery genre and most of her books sold well and read well, but this one is among her best. The nice art is by Griffith Foxley.
The mission statement was simple—take potshots at every star in the firmament.
Top Secret is in fine form in this issue from October 1962 as it goes after all the biggest celebrities in Hollywood and Europe. Treading the line between journalism and slander is no easy feat, but take notice—Top Secret’s editors and hacks manage to pull off a high wire act. And of course this was key to the tabloids' modus operandi—they had to present information in a seemingly fearless or even iconoclastic way, yet never actually cross the line that would land them in court.
For example, there’s this dig at Frank Sinatra: “Mr. Snarl, Mr. Nasty, Mr. Do-You-Want-A-Belt-In-The-Mouth was as gentle as a lamb. Gone was the usual sneer, the wise-guy leer. Was this the same surly singer whose idea of a good morning’s exercise had been to watch his bodyguards work over a photographer?”
Grace Kelly takes a few arrows: “It’s a pretty good bet that the immediate bust-up of the marriage won’t come in the next few months, but it sure as shooting looks like her six-year reign as the glamorous princess of that silly little kingdom on the Mediterranean is going to blow up in her prim face.”
Christina Paolozzi gets roughed up thusly: “If anything, Christina in the buff is proof that clothes are an underdeveloped girl’s best friends. Therethe Countess stands with a pleased expression that seems to say, ‘Aren’t I something, Mister?’ But all it takes is one quick look to see that there isn’t really anything to get excited about—unless [you love] barbecued spareribs.”
Anita Ekberg receives this treatment: “[La Dolce Vita] was something like a peek into the boudoir antics of its star—the gal with the fantastic superstructure that looks like nothing less than two tugboats pulling a luxury liner into port.”
And what tabloid would be complete without Marilyn Monroe? Top Secret says she’s dating writer José Bolaños (who the magazine calls a Mexican jumping bean). Editors opt to unveil the news this way: “It seems that this bold bundle of blonde has suddenly gone on a strange Mexican hayride!!! Si, amigo, MEXICAN!”
And then there’s cover star Elizabeth Taylor: “And she acted wilder than ever, satisfying all her most urgent urges for Dickie in the most wide open ways. [She] had jumped from tragedy right into disgrace by having a wild fling with Eddie Fisher a mere six months after hubby Mike Todd had been planted six feet under. ‘Mike is dead, and I’m alive,’ she said cynically after running off for a riotous romp in the fall of 1958 with the guy who just then happened to be married to Debbie Reynolds. 'I’m not taking anything away from Debbie, because she never really had it,' luscious Liz sneered."
This issue of Top Secret is, succinctly put, a clinic in mid-century tabloid writing—alliterative and spicy, insinuative and sleazy, but never quite legally actionable. How could Ekberg argue that the tugboat similie wasn’t interpretable as a compliment? Could Christina Paolozzi deny that her ribs show? Could Sinatra claim that his bodyguards neverslugged a photographer? The magazine skirts the edge a bit with Taylor—did you catch how the editors paired “urges for Dick(ie)” with “wide open ways”?—but was she misquoted or truly slandered? Highly doubtful. Top Secret is pure, trashy genius. Magazines don’t have such writing anymore, and that’s probably a good thing—but it sure is fun to look back at how things were. More scans below.
Oh, get off the floor silly. I didn’t drain all your energy.
Above, The Love-Go-Round by W.E. Butterworth, 1962. Butterworth is better known as W.E.B. Griffin, an author who since 1960 has sold tens of millions of books in numerous genres, and notably co-authored the M*A*S*H series with Richard Hooker. The art here, which says so much by using so little, is by Barye Phillips.
Mid-century fiction’s love affair with the East produced scores of virtuoso bookcovers.
It seems time for another themed cover collection, so today we’re sharing some of the scores of Asian styled mid-century paperback fronts we’ve seen. Much of the fiction here is offensive on some level, but then quite a bit of the old literature falls into that category. The art, on the other hand, is somewhat easier to look at dispassionately. So we have thirty-two paperback covers revealing the mid-century fascination with—or exploitation of—Asian archetypes, with art by Denis McLoughlin, Robert Maguire (identically on Ne-San and The Transistor Girls), J. Oval, aka Ben Ostrick, and more. Four or five of these came from Flickr, so thanks to the original uploaders on those.
If they were trying to avoid being remembered, they quite possibly succeeded.
Above is cover art for Nikou Dobry’s La griffe du démon, aka The Devil’s Claw, published 1956 for Editions de l’Arabesque’s Parme collection. Dobry published several other books, but it’s likely the name was a pseudonym. With these French pulp writers, that’s often the case. One website suggests Dobry was a person named Pruneyrol, but we got zero hits on that name, so a real identification may be hoping for too much. And the art? It’s signed simply M. Boero. With all the false and incomplete identities surrounding French mid-century literature, you’d almost think they were ashamed of their work, but remember that American authors played the same tricks. For instance, sleaze pulps were often written by moonlighting popular authors. The same is probably true with the French. But we will keep digging, and eventually we will unmask them.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
The Battle of Normandy, aka D-Day, begins with the landing of 155,000 Allied troops on the beaches of northern France in an event codenamed Operation Overlord. The German army by this time is already seriously depleted after their long but unsuccessful struggle to conquer Russia in the East, thus Allied soldiers quickly break through the Nazi defensive positions and push inland in the largest amphibious military operation in history.
1963—John Profumo Resigns
British Secretary of State for War John Profumo resigns after the revelation
that he had been sexually involved with a showgirl and sometime prostitute named Christine Keeler. Among Keeler's close acquaintances was a senior Soviet naval attaché, thus in addition to Profumo committing adultery then lying about it before the House of Commons, authorities pressed for his resignation because they also feared he had been plied for state secrets.
1939—Journey of the St. Louis
The German passenger liner MS St. Louis, carrying 963 Jewish refugees, is denied permission to land in Florida, United States, after already being turned away from Cuba. Forced to return to Europe, many of its passengers later die in Nazi concentration camps. The event becomes the subject of a 1974 book, Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, and is later adapted into a film with the same title, released in 1976.
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